In King Arthur Henry Purcell lets the world freeze, humanity loses its way and sings ecstatically of nationalism. A hundred years after the start of the First World War the director Paul Koek and the librettist Peter Verhelst place the music of Purcell in a contemporary setting. A blind woman wanders through the battlefield looking for her beloved. She is accompanied by a woman who describes for her what she cannot see, whilst Arthur, the little boy of the latter, dreams of going to war. The music and melodies of Purcell react with the situation to add an emotional depth: a glimmer of beauty that lights up the darkness.
Following on from Medea and Moby Dick, this is the third collaboration between the Dutch musical theatre director, Paul Koek and the Belgian writer, Peter Verhelst.
Paul Koek: Peter Verhelst was introduced with the arrival of the dramatist Paul Slangenat at the Veenfabriek. For sure, I already knew Peter at the time of Hollandia, but I had never worked with him before. During his years at NTGent Paul had linked up with Peter and he was convinced that we should get together. Peter Verhelst is a writer who I get a lot from. In his writing, virtually every sentence evokes an image, and that works really well when transferred to the stage. It’s agreed that they should therefore be as beautiful as possible. This allows me to have a truly musical approach: even if I wanted to it would be impossible to just settle for a simple musical illustration of the text. Peter moves on too quickly for that, as much on the level of images as of perspective. And that’s where the difficulty lies: Peter truly follows his own path: the only way to manage it is to trust him. In general I am happy with one or two discussions then to let Peter produce a text in conjunction with my dramatist. I find this an excellent way to work. Not to spend too much time on the form it has to take but to confront what another has imagined and developed. That allows me the latitude afterwards to treat it with great freedom. I believe that Peter totally approves of that approach.
Peter Verhelst: Absolutely! I know that my way of writing can make life difficult for Paul and his actors. My texts are constructions that are totally interwoven. To find your way through this material is not easy. But, every time, Paul Koek comes out of it brilliantly, thanks to which Paul Slagen and his actors and musicians can do what they want. At the same time his musical approach is the ideal key. The application of musical principles such as rhythm and melody is a technique that confers a maximum of grandeur and clarity to the entire world that is hidden in my writing. As a result the emphasis is less on the character and more on what he represents. To come to the content, I love working with Paul Slangen. We get together and discuss the different angles for possibly attacking the material – the philosophical, historical and political dimensions. Then I write isolated fragments which we then integrate in a structure. I am not a typical writer for the theatre: I don’t really believe in dialogues but rather in monologues. I believe in language. To create a situation or a connection between the characters on stage, I leave that largely to the dramatist. Then I can concentrate on what makes them react in their heart of hearts, what moves them and what they understand of the world, as much in their interior body as their exterior body. For me the theatre is less about a place where you have to tell a story but more about a place where human experience can be shared and understood; another reason why I like working with Paul Koek. The music allows us to directly transform the lived experience into metaphor. For the mystery of man is and remains that, most often, he finds himself face to face with ‘the other’ when through language he could share experiences with this other. In this way I try to do with language what Paul does with sounds: I get under the skin of people and lead them to discover themselves through the intervention of ‘the other’, the one that is on stage.
The Baroque Orchestra B’Rock was born out of a wish to renew and rejuvenate the world of early music.
PK: Yes and the music of Purcell’s King Arthur is ideally suited to it. In the beginning I thought it would be necessary to add another type of musical material in order to include more laments in the production. But, with the conductor of the orchestra, George Petrou, we came to the conclusion that the music composed by Purcell is so rich that King Arthur gives us plenty of possible variations that are more than capable of touching people’s deepest emotions. In my eyes, B’Rock is the ideal ensemble to take on this challenge, because it was born out of a wish to renew and rejuvenate the world of early music. It is comprised of exceptional musicians, ambitious and sufficiently confident in their abilities to dare to improvise within the limits of baroque music. Since its creation in 2005, they have undoubtedly proved their worth. They have already been involved in a production at la Monnaie during the 2011-2012 season: Orlando under the musical direction of René Jacobs. They received many plaudits for this collaboration. The act of starting with the individual – something Peter can do better than anyone else – was a blessing for me in the case of Arthur. Guy Coolen, of Transparant, asked me to create a piece for musical theatre about the First World War with King Arthur as my starting point. But I wasn’t very taken with the idea of finding myself in the trenches. Not because of a lack of interest, but because I was convinced that I could never truly understand what those millions of men had to endure. And anyway the idea that all those men would have experienced the same tragedy in an identical way seemed to me highly unlikely. Without realising it we would reduce each victim to an anonymous individual who was sent to his death 100 years ago. We therefore had to find a way to render it more personal and understandable; find a way to set up someone who is no longer of this world as a of symbol of the millions of men who lost their lives. Paradoxically this led me to the libretto of King Arthur where blind Emmeline wanders in a landscape which has become foreign to her. A dramatic image. When I learnt later that 53 different nationalities, men from all the colonies, fought around Ypres, everything fell into place. We can only grasp the inconceivable nature of the war through the incredulity which overwhelms us when we are confronted with the results. My making this blind African woman wander through the battlefield looking for the mortal remains of her husband fallen in battle, in the company of a woman and her son from that area, we are able to evoke the overwhelming nature of the disaster through the personal sorrow of two survivors.
PV: Something totally different but it is related: when I was a little boy I saw pictures of a famine in the Sahel region, it was like a bomb exploding; I realised that everyone of us, wherever we are in the world, feels the ground slipping from beneath his/her feet when he or she loses someone dear to them… even in Africa where people face death on a daily basis. Maybe it’s stupid but this awful idea, that everyone who loved one of these men who disappeared – ( How many was it again? Five hundred thousand in Flanders alone during the First World War?) was overwhelmed by grief because of these deaths – it is a truth that is difficult to live with. It is, above all else, this which interests me in Arthur, this immense grief. This grief after loss. This emptiness that will never completely heal. This appalling small battle which has nothing, really nothing, to do with armies, generals or nationalism. This universal dimension of the little man. So nothing heroic, the opposite of heroism: the gut-wrenching tears of all those who lost someone during the First World War. And in stark contrast with this: nature which returns to life in spite of everything, even if it is with wounds – hills created by the impact of a bomb, bombs still hidden in the soil; it doesn’t stop the flowers and trees from growing and the birds from returning. A consolation.
Interview by Paul Slangen